IntroductionThe underprivileged do not have any desire to remain poor. In the urban areas, there are servant maids, the vendors of flowers, vegetables and the like who are poor. They live in slums since their income is not good enough to rent out the smallest of good houses. Their social conditions are pitiable. They ventilate their anger against everything that is missing for them by indulging in petty crimes.
Yet, what is missing is communication with them. Or at least notable efforts to allow them to think about how they could lead far better ethical lives. This involves direct social action, the centre of which is the level of communication and engagement. Such action ought to be at least ten times more than what is there now.
The direct action that needs to be taken pertains to a) Improve slums and living conditions through voluntary efforts b) Involving them in meaningful community projects and motivating them c) Weaning away the drunkards and reforming them d) Helping them start small businesses and e) Funding higher education of bright children.
Improve slums and living conditions Let us face it. The poor live in the slums in pitiable conditions. One big rain and the hut is gone. Improving living conditions does not mean giving them money. The men will corner money and spend that on their mandatory liquor. Instead, the best possible insurance against such misuse of funds made available through voluntary funds is to directly help the slum residents. Such funds should be channelised to improve better living conditions. It is normally observed that they do have bank accounts and sometimes some little gold as well. They should also be made to pitch in with some little money to rebuild their houses with asbestos sheets or to dig up a borewell that could give them access to water continuously.
All this requires a lot of coordination between the rich donors who could be doctors, movie actors, chartered accountants and so on. Help could also come through the involvement of sociologists and volunteers from the various schools of Social Work teaching the Master's degree in Social Work. A very high level of communication and reasoning with the slum residents in various groups, with the involvement of influential local leaders, is also essential. One can rest assured that once this happens, it is easy to get the buy-in from other groups such as NRI s will be that much easier.
Involving them in meaningful community projects and motivating them The poor can also be effectively involved in deepening of ponds and lakes in their neighbourhood. They can also be involved in cleanliness campaigns. Contrary to public perception, they also desire to live in clean surroundings, with better water to drink and air to breath. They need to just be convinced of some desirable developments that can directly involve them and take them to the next level. For instance, there is already a very informal chit fund business that exists among them. Someone who manages it often cheats them and runs away with the cash. Their precious earnings need to flow into post office recurring deposits. A viable community project is to allow them to save in this fashion and also in a nearby co-operative bank, where the transactions are often done in the local language. A particular slum in North Chennai, for example, was involved in such banking habits with a co-operative bank that was already over fifty years old. The women started saving good amounts in such deposit accounts to buy whatever little gold they could buy. This was in turn used for jewel loans to finance the education of children. The School of Social work teacher who acted as a catalyst was able to get things done and within a short span of 24 months, their monthly savings ran into hundreds of thousands of rupees.
This of course covered at least three hundred women, who were sort of became multi-skilled. For example, a couple of them also doubled as care-takers to take care of two sick, but very rich men in the evening hours, earning Rs.5000 per month, which was a good amount back then. Their drunk husbands were separated and counselled. Once this was done, the women were taught a few skills such as toy making and stitching. This was a small experiment, but it worked. The toys were sold in the local market, mostly through student volunteers, to reduce marketing costs. Of course, this effort is over a decade old. The efforts to communicate with the women were particularly very tough, as the women were themselves under the influence of local goons who did nothing for them but just gave them some money from time to time. The voluntary group did not give up. They had the support of a good DMK party man who could handle the goons. All such efforts do take time. These poor people are often exploited and they 'organize' crowds for various meetings that take place every month.
Yet, such constructive efforts are needed for constructive community projects. Yes, it is a long-term activity and even case studies are difficult to come by. The need is for direct action. Invariably, the effort has to start by maximizing their savings. If it is not so, they will tend to expect everything for free. The effective involvement in a range of activities of a vast majority of poor people living in the slums is very much imperative.
Weaning away the drunkards and reforming themEven in the aforesaid experiment, the problem of drunkard husbands was the main issue. This happens to this day. In Tamil Nadu, the Govt owned liquor shops make huge money and earn revenue for the State Government. Hence, the State itself is the main culprit in the game.
However, when local influential opinion leaders are involved, the task becomes relatively easy. Some good voluntary efforts made in this direction have yielded results and the savings have been used for the education of children. And in the provision of basic medical facilities for the family and so on. All efforts to step up the momentum of such actions need to be put in place. For, there is every danger that all construction work done will otherwise be nullified.
Helping them start small businesses The self-help group in Tamil Nadu is very powerful. In a good number of cases, the slum dwellers are also involved. The co-operative movement is often very strong in the local neighbourhood. The secret is to start such co-operatives on a much larger scale and then bring them to do small businesses for which loans can be arranged. This has been done in a few pockets. However, there needs to be more of an organization in this regard. Once the viable business models are put for consideration, the Corporate houses will be happy to chip in with their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds and this can help a great deal too.
One of the viable projects for helping the slum dwellers relates to giving them small loans to set up catering establishments from their home or engage in limited trading. The Schools of Social Work need to be engaged to identify viable projects in this regard.
Funding higher education of bright children Some years ago a particular Tamil weekly carried a passionate story on the sad plight of a bright boy who had scored above average marks from a particular slum. It so happened that the parents were so poor and wondered how they pay even the minimum fees demanded by colleges for engineering education. The story had a ripple effect. One particular college not only gave the seat for free but waived all fees. Going a step further, the boy was also given free food and hostel facilities for the entire four-year education. Such examples abound.
All that needs to be done is to highlight such cases and start trusts to streamline donations that will only be used for the most constructive purpose of education. This effort has to be pan-India and industry collaboration is also needed. For instance, the local big companies should identify five such bright students and fund their education. The boys or girls can also be employed in the same companies, after signing a bond for say, five years of continuous service.
Conclusion The aforesaid steps have been already done in isolated pockets of Chennai. It is not that other cities do not have identical slums. The poor always remain poor, as the cost of living becomes a massive headache for them at some point in time. Or always. Hence, more constructive work needs to be done in direct ways with a good deal of voluntary community support. The scope is very big. However, one can always make a start and then keep doing the bigger things.
A very nice article and the necessity of improving the living standards of poor is very well described. But the main problem in India is the rulers use their position for their betterment than for the betterment of the poor. The policies of the government help the rich to become richer and the poor will remain poor only. That is the reason why the gap between the two is getting widened than becoming narrow.
There are many schemes introduced by the government like free medical aid, free houses and food for work schemes. But the facilities will be snatched away by the people who are influential by offering some considerations to the concerned sanctioning authorities. Unless the ways of these people change it is very difficult to bring in good systems and see that poor will be able to come out of their poverty.
Even the financial institutes will never help people who are in need but they give crores of rupees to the rich and will get easily deceived. NGOs can come forward and help the poor and see that at least some families will come out of poverty. We can also support such NGOs by donating liberally from outside. But the main issue is how to see that the funds will be utilised properly without any corruption in that process.